April 14th, 2014

What we learned from Tigers road trip

The Tigers’ first road trip of 2014 felt a lot like many of their road trips from 2013: A number of close, low-scoring games; a couple games where the Tigers struggled to hit some pitchers they seemingly would’ve hit; and close to a break-even mark coming back. A 2-3 record on a West Coast trip isn’t the worst outcome for this team. It could’ve been better, mainly if they could’ve produced another run off Kenley Jansen Tuesday in L.A. It could have been worse if the Dodgers had finished the rally they put together against Joe Nathan the following evening.

Here are some trends that emerged:

1. The Tigers are going to have to create some opportunities against some right-handed pitching.

The righty-lefty balance the Tigers used to enjoy in their lineup isn’t the same now with Prince Fielder gone and Andy Dirks injured. The imbalance is stronger when Alex Avila isn’t hitting, as he is now with a 3-for-23 start and 14 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances. That was bad news Sunday against Tyson Ross, who held right-handed batters to a .198 (45-for-227) average and 72 strikeouts last year. That number has gone up and down over the years, but left-handers have always fared better against him. But with Avila slumping and sitting, the only hitter from the left side in Sunday’s Tigers lineup was Victor Martinez.

“We are a right-handed hitting lineup, and if Alex isn’t in the lineup that day, we become even more right-handed,” manager Brad Ausmus.

That’s where the Tigers might have to utilize their speed if the struggles continue. Ian Kinsler stole second and third against Josh Beckett on Wednesday, setting up a sac fly. Rajai Davis did the same thing against Andrew Cashner on Friday, but Miguel Cabrera hit into a double play with runners at the corners and one out.

On the whole, the Tigers’ .251 average and .707 OPS against right-handed pitching rank ninth in the American League. Their .303 on-base percentage sits them at 12th. Most of those struggles come from Avila (2-for-18, 11 K’s off righties) and the shortstop position (5-for-30).

Those numbers will improve once Miguel Cabrera (9-for-35, 3 doubles, HR off RHP so far) starts getting more opposite-field hits to drop, but the imbalance is going to be an issue against right-handed pitchers with heavy splits. And for now, unless the Tigers do something at shortstop, there isn’t much ability to change. Davis is off to a hot start that includes righties (9-for-28), and his history shows it’s worth riding out the hot streaks through lefties and righties alike.

2. Dead arm is still a baseball term.

Until Joe Nathan brought it up on a radio show, the term seemed relegated to baseball lore. He not only brought it back into discussion, his struggles made it all anybody wanted to talk about with him. It’s usually about velocity, but Nathan hasn’t thrown consistently in the mid-90s for a few years. He got his fastball up to 93 on Wednesday, and Dee Gordon turned on it for a game-tying single.

The issue with Nathan has as much to do with command. He walked 14 batters in his final season with the Twins in 2011, and 13 batters his first year in Texas, before that number jumped to 22 last year. He now has four walks in 4 1/3 innings, twice as many as he had in the first month of the past two seasons combined. The good news for him is that half of his 14 walks in 2011 occurred in April, so he has some history of settling down.

3. Even the best hitter in the league goes through mechanical issues at the plate.

The final numbers on the trip weren’t pretty for Miguel Cabrera: 2-for-20 with a double, two walks and five strikeouts. None of those hits went to the opposite field. For that matter, he didn’t send a ball to right with authority until Saturday.

For all the discussion about lefty-righty balance in the lineup, Cabrera’s ups and downs will have a much bigger impact. The two games in which the Tigers scored more than two runs were the two games in which Cabrera had a base hit. With no Prince Fielder, that’s just how it goes.

Cabrera’s pull tendency, and his habit to keep both hands on the bat through his swing, came after a very good Spring Training for him — not against minor-leaguers and non-roster guys, but everybody. At a time of camp when pitchers are ahead of hitters, Cabrera was ahead of pitchers. Now he’s fighting himself, though two well-struck outs to right over the weekend suggest he’s not far from breaking out of it.

4. Andrew Romine is better than utility level at shortstop if he could hit.

The numbers at the plate, while a small sample size, are ugly for Romine, 1-for-12 with two walks and five strikeouts so far this year. The defensive ability has been borderline stellar. While Alex Gonzalez has been hit-and-miss in the field, usually stronger towards the middle, Romine has arguably been the defensive stability in his four starts, moving well both laterally and charging in on balls.

Aside from opening day, the shortstop position hasn’t been strong for offense, and it’s worth wondering what the timetable will be for the Tigers to evaluate the mix. It’s early still, but at least defensively, Romine is much better than an afterthought.